"A lot of people don't realize this, but Remain in Light was the worst-selling Talking Heads record ever," says drummer Chris Frantz.
"Financially, we took a beating on that one," says David Byrne. "At the time, it was a really hard sell. The reaction that we heard was that it sounded too black for white radio and too white for black radio."
Remain in Light may have been a commercial disappointment, but musically, the band's 1980 album — which combines funk, disco and African rhythms — was years ahead of its time. "It got great critical acclaim, and we felt that it kind of took popular music to the next phase," says Frantz, "which is what we always wanted to do."
But getting there wasn't easy. Depending on who you speak to, tensions in the studio often ran high between at least two parties. "Remain in Light was a difficult album to make," says Frantz. "We wanted to do something groundbreaking, but we didn't want to get into fights about it. And a couple of times we did get into fights — musical fights — because somebody wanted to go one way and another person thought it shouldn't sound like that."
Within the first week of recording with producer Brian Eno at the Compass Point studios, in the Bahamas, British engineer Rhett Davies quit in frustration. "He said, 'You guys could be making a great pop album,'" says Frantz. "The British, you know, have these ideas about 'great pop albums.' So he left." In his place, they hired David Jerden, who had worked with Eno and Byrne on their recent collaboration, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.
Bassist Tina Weymouth says recruiting Eno was difficult because he and Byrne had had a falling out. "Brian didn't even stay to finish Bush of Ghosts," she says. "Something happened between him and David. We asked him to work on Remain in Light, and at first he was reluctant. I really don't know what went down between them."
Byrne has slightly different memories of who was fighting whom. "That was between me and Tina," he says with a laugh. "I think she was understandably upset that Brian and I were pushing this whole direction so adamantly. It was almost like it was a train out of control or something. Maybe she felt that she wasn't a part of that. She was a part of it, but I can understand how she might have felt." Did that tension affect the album? "Nah," says Byrne, "it was all kind of extracurricular."
Even today, the band members disagree about what they'd set out to accomplish. "We were really intrigued and excited by the formal aspects of African music — the way it was created and put together," says Byrne.
Weymouth, however, says, "David had such a completely different theory about it. His theory was far more intellectual and bookish. I never felt that there was any conscious, manipulative effort on our part to play African styles. To me and Chris, it seemed as if that importance was attached to the record after the fact."
While working on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Byrne and Eno studied voodoo and Afro-Atlantic cultures. "They were very keen on some literature they'd been reading," says Weymouth. "I suppose we all were quite aware of African music sometime before that. But no one discussed with us the fact we were going to be playing in an African style. To us, it was all very funny, putting this bibliography together with a record. It's so pseudo intellectual and everything we were trying to get away from."
While the music may or may not owe a formal, conscious debt to African styles, the words are definitely more playful than intellectual. Byrne says that Eno encouraged him to be a bit freer with his lyrics. "I really played around a lot more," he says.
"It was the beginning of David finding a way to improvise very quickly in the studio," says Weymouth. "Before, it had been a very private kind of struggle."
For "Crosseyed and Painless," Weymouth says, Byrne was struggling to come up with a vocal part. "Chris had just played drums on the new Kurtis Blow record, 'The Breaks,' which was a real front-runner hip-hop record," she says. Frantz played Blow's album for everyone, and after hearing it, Byrne came up with such lyrics as "Facts are late." "It was that whole rap thing," says Weymouth, "but in his own style."
Weymouth claims that most of the songs on Remain in Light came about from jams, yet only Byrne and Eno receive songwriting credits. "Eno called up David and said, 'I really think this is unfair,'" she says. "'I really think I did more work, and so I think you and I should get all of the credit.'"
That didn't go over well with the rest of the band. "Poor David got yelled at by a lot of people as a result," Weymouth says with a laugh. "But Brian and David were really into this credit thing, I guess."
The album cover, which features computer images over the faces of each band member, was conceived of by Frantz and Weymouth, who'd been experimenting on computers at MIT. "The masks could have been anything," says Weymouth. "They could have been African, they could have been tomatoes on our face. It wasn't really that important — it was just kind of raising questions. Making people think, 'What are they trying to do?'
"We really didn't know. We don't always know what we're doing. We often just get excited, put something down and say, 'Oh, neat.'"